Sextortion: An old form of corruption gets a new name

Friday, 10 April 2015 15:52 GMT

Statue depicting justice scales in Tehran, Iran on May 9, 2011. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

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Women can encounter sextortion wherever vulnerability and power collide.

“I want sex.  One or two times.  That’s all.  You get your green card.  You won’t have to see me anymore.”

Sex in exchange for a green card.  That was the deal U.S. immigration officer Isaac Baichu, offered a young Colombian woman.  But he didn’t know the conversation was being recorded on the digital camera in her pocket. 

Usually, there are no witnesses or recordings when officials like Baichu abuse their power to extort sex.  Baichu handled about 8,000 green card applications during his three years as an adjudicator in Garden City, NY. 

Perhaps this was the only time he demanded sex from an applicant.  Perhaps other adjudicators never prey upon applicants in this way.  It would be nice to believe this is an isolated case of wrongdoing.  Experience and intuition suggest it is just the tip of the iceberg. 

If an official shakes someone down for money, we call it bribery and label the official as corrupt. But what if he demands a sexual favor instead of cash?  Is it corruption?  Is it sexual exploitation?  It is both, and the International Association of Women Judges has coined a name – “sextortion” – for corruption in which sex is the currency of the bribe.  

Sextortion is a global phenomenon that causes serious harm, robbing women of dignity and opportunity and undermining confidence in public institutions.  But it often falls between the legal cracks and doesn’t get prosecuted as either a sexual crime or corruption.

Corruption summons images of money changing hands, and anti-corruption efforts focus on financial wrongdoing, not sexual favors.  Gender-based violence laws address sexual exploitation, but often focus on issues of consent.  We don’t question whether the woman consented when she reports a knife to her throat, but when the threat is to her future or livelihood, it may be taken less seriously and seen as a consensual bargain rather than a crime. 

Isaac Baichu clearly didn’t think that sex – one or two times – was a big deal.  He told the woman, “That’s all” – dismissing the sex as inconsequential. 

But it was immensely consequential for the woman.  As she told the judge, “he really affected my life and messed with it in every aspect possible.  My marriage, my papers – I don’t have a job, my papers expired.”

Baichu was sentenced to nearly four years in prison.       

There is a pattern to the abuse of power to obtain sexual favors. We need to recognize and name the following situations as sextortion when they occur:

  • It is the local official who demands sex in exchange for a permit to sell goods in the market.
  • It is the teacher who demands sex in exchange for a passing grade. 
  • It is the police officer who demands sex in exchange for not issuing a traffic ticket. 
  • It is the employer who demands sex in exchange for opportunities to earn overtime pay.
  • It is the relief camp peacekeeper who demands sex in exchange for food.

Women can encounter sextortion wherever vulnerability and power collide.  But they are often reluctant to report it, and perhaps feel too ashamed or worry no one will believe them. 

Forty years ago, what we now know as “sexual harassment” was commonplace, but not something women felt empowered to stop – not until the term was coined, laws were passed, and anti-sexual harassment policies were developed.  

Today, sexual harassment is a part of almost every domestic and international discussion about discrimination and gender-based violence.   

It is time to do the same for sextortion. 

Today marks the launch of  “Combating Sextortion:  A Comparative Study of Laws To Prosecute Corruption Involving Sexual Exploitation,” a new report produced by the International Association of Women Judges, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, and an international team of law firms led by Marval, O’Farrell and Mairal. 

The report illustrates how sextortion manifests around the world; examines the laws available for prosecuting it, and describes the often-inadequate response of the criminal justice systems in nine jurisdictions. These findings provide a blueprint for strengthening the laws and policies needed to combat sextortion.  

But having the right legal framework is not enough if we don’t recognize sextortion when we see it.  We need to make sextortion part of the conversation. 

Addressing the problem begins with giving it a name:  sextortion. 


--Nancy H. Hendry is the Senior Advisor at the International Association of Women Judges, a non-profit, non-governmental organization whose members represent all levels of the judiciary worldwide and share a commitment to equal justice and the rule of law.